First impressions do matter when it comes to communicating personality through appearance, according to new research by psychologists Laura Naumann of Sonoma State University and Sam Gosling of The University of Texas at Austin.
Despite the crucial role of physical appearance in creating first impressions, until now little research has examined the accuracy of personality impressions based on appearance alone. . . .
“In an age dominated by social media where personal photographs are ubiquitous, it becomes important to understand the ways personality is communicated via our appearance,” says Naumann. “The appearance one portrays in his or her photographs has important implications for their professional and social life.”
In the study, observers viewed full-body photographs of 123 people they had never met before. The targets were viewed either in a controlled pose with a neutral facial expression or in a naturally expressed pose. The accuracy of the judgments was gauged by comparing them to the aggregate of self-ratings and that of three informants who knew the targets well, a criterion now widely regarded as the gold standard in personality research.
Even when viewing the targets in the controlled pose, the observers could accurately judge some major personality traits, including extraversion and self-esteem. But most traits were hard to detect under these conditions. When observers saw naturally expressive behavior (such as a smiling expression or energetic stance), their judgments were accurate for nine of the 10 personality traits. The 10 traits were extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, likability, self-esteem, loneliness, religiosity and political orientation.
“We have long known that people jump to conclusions about others on the basis of very little information,” says Gosling, “but what’s striking about these findings is how many of the impressions have a kernel of truth to them, even on the basis of something as simple a single photograph.”
Gosling cautioned that observers still make plenty of mistakes, but noted that this latest work is important because it sheds new light on the sources of accuracy and inaccuracy of judgments.
With this kind of knowledge, individuals can choose to alter their appearance in specific ways, either to make identity claims or shape others impressions of them, Naumann says.
“If you want potential employers or romantic suitors to see you as a warm and friendly individual, you should post pictures where you smile or are standing in a relaxed pose,” suggests Naumann.
For example, whether you smile and how you stand (tense vs. relaxed, energetic vs. tired) are important cues to judge a variety of traits. Extraverts smile more, stand in energetic and less tense ways, and look healthy, neat and stylish. People who are more open to experience are less likely to have a healthy, neat appearance, but are more likely to have a distinctive style of dress.
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Sitting up straight in your chair isn’t just good for your posture – it also gives you more confidence in your own thoughts, according to a new study.
Researchers found that people who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.
On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.
The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
“Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people,” Petty said. “But it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you’re in.”
Petty conducted the study with Pablo Briñol, a former postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State now at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, and Benjamin Wagner, a current graduate student at Ohio State. The research appears in the October 2009 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.
The study included 71 students at Ohio State. When they entered the lab for the experiment, the participants were told they would be taking part in two separate studies at the same time, one organized by the business school and one by the arts school.
They were told the arts study was examining factors contributing to people’s acting abilities, in this case, the ability to maintain a specific posture while engaging in other activities. They were seated at a computer terminal and instructed to either “sit up straight” and “push out [their] chest]” or “sit slouched forward” with their “face looking at [their] knees.”
While in one of these positions, students participated in the business study, which supposedly investigated factors contributing to job satisfaction and professional performance.
While holding their posture, students listed either three positive or three negative personal traits relating to future professional performance on the job.
After completing this task, the students took a survey in which they rated themselves on how well they would do as a future professional employee.
The results were striking.
How the students rated themselves as future professionals depended on which posture they held as they wrote the positive or negative traits.
Students who held the upright, confident posture were much more likely to rate themselves in line with the positive or negative traits they wrote down.
In other words, if they wrote positive traits about themselves, they rated themselves more highly, and if they wrote negative traits about themselves, they rated themselves lower.
“Their confident, upright posture gave them more confidence in their own thoughts, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty said.
However, students who assumed the slumped over, less confident posture, didn’t seem convinced by their own thoughts – their ratings didn’t differ much regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative things about themselves.
The end result of this was that when students wrote positive thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more highly when in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to confidence in the positive thoughts.
However, when students wrote negative thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more negatively in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to more confidence in their negative thoughts.
Petty emphasized that while students were told to sit up straight or to slump down, the researchers did not use the words “confident” or “doubt” in the instructions or gave any indication about how the posture was supposed to make them feel.
In a separate experiment, the researchers repeated the same scenario with a different group of students, but asked them a series of questions afterwards about how they felt during the course of the study.
“These participants didn’t report feeling more confident in the upright position than they did in the slouched position, even though those in the upright position did report more confidence in the thoughts they generated,” Petty said.
That suggests people’s thoughts are influenced by their posture, even though they don’t realize that is what’s happening.
“People assume their confidence is coming from their own thoughts. They don’t realize their posture is affecting how much they believe in what they’re thinking,” he said.
“If they did realize that, posture wouldn’t have such an effect.”
This research extends a 2003 study by Petty and Briñol which found similar results for head nodding. In that case, people had more confidence in thoughts they generated when they nodded their head up and down compared to when they shook their head from side to side.
However, Petty noted that body posture is a static pose compared to head nodding, and probably more natural and easy to use in day-to-day life.
“Sitting up straight is something you can train yourself to do, and it has psychological benefits – as long as you generally have positive thoughts,” he said.
For example, students are often told when taking a multiple-choice test that if they’re not absolutely sure of the answer, their first best guess is more often correct.
“If a student is sitting up straight, he may be more likely to believe his first answer. But if he is slumped down, he may change it and end up not performing as well on the test,” he said.
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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” “The Situation of Trust,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Situation of Hair Color.”